Reviewed by David Gosling
In preparing this collective review of three written pieces by Stan Goff, a one-time Army Master Sergeant turned Socialist; I found myself simultaneously repulsed and intrigued, pushed and pulled, by his suggestions, opinions, insights, findings, memories, and rants. Of the three works, one is a straightforward memoir of Goff’s experiences in Haiti as a Special Forces Operator during Operation Restore (Uphold) Democracy, entitled Hideous Dream.
The second book paints on a much broader canvas, as reflected in its title: Full Spectrum Disorder: the Military in the New American Century, and is a convoluted assortment of chapters covering everything from Goff’s personal experiences in Guatemala and El Salvador, to his opinions on moral imperialism, epistemology, and the fallibility of nuclear reactors. The last piece is: “Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq”, which has gained popularity since its posting on the web for its sincerity and blunt delivery (a Goff staple).
I was asked to do this review from both the perspective of a U.S. Infantry officer (which I am), and a Christian Quaker (which I am trying very hard to become). Goff holds neither officers nor religion in high regard, which is just as well considering my praise is reserved for Stan Goff the man: a relentless pursuer of knowledge with a blinding intellect and a flair for the caustic, opinionated word; and not for the agonizingly long and self-indulgent memoir that is Hideous Dream or the muddled, overtly Leftist take on U.S. Foreign Policy put forth in Full Spectrum.
Goff himself is a man of integrity, by which I mean the concepts he developed in his memoir were not trampled in his second book for the purpose of an easy sale, but rather built upon and expanded to further his own understanding of the complex dynamics streaking through our modern society. For this he has my respect, although I do as an Army officer “constitute the dustbin of the American intelligentsia” (p. 50, FSD).
Master Sergeant (retired) Goff served in the Special Operations community of the Armed Forces for nearly two decades, alternating between the three most coveted jobs in the Infantry world: Army Ranger, “Green Beret”, and “Delta” operator. He served as a paratrooper in Vietnam and did various stints with the aforementioned elite units in El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, Haiti, and Somalia. From a military perspective, I was unable to find fault with the methods and explanations outlined throughout Hideous Dream. Goff has a clear understanding of military protocol, and an uncanny read on the limitations and inadequacies of the lumbering giant that is Army bureaucracy.
The memoir takes the reader in painstaking detail from the training areas on Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, all the way through the various stops and starts Goff’s team encounter through the staging process in Cuba and the actual mission in Haiti. Goff routinely describes his mounting frustration at the paradoxical nature of the operation, where he is forced to reintegrate the oppressive military regime (the Force Armee d’Haiti, or FAdH) in a policing role after it was assumed the US forces were only to reinstate the deposed President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide and his supporting group, Lavalas. He also details the crumbling façade of team morale, as his soldiers feel growing resentment at his unorthodox tactics and beliefs, the end result being his and his team commander’s relief from theater with a one-way ticket home to North Carolina.
Though Dream gives an introduction to both Haitian society and Special Forces work, it is tainted by a lingering negativity. Goff paints his teammates in a singularly one-dimensional light. Although we learn Ali is a womanizer, Kyle and Skye are racists, and Gonzo can work on anything mechanical; in the end they are all petty, full of spite, and ignorant of Haitian culture. Even Mike Gallante, the Detachment Commander and sole ally of Goff, comes across as weak-kneed and reluctant to lead. The Higher Headquarters officers and commanders are all incompetent or hamstrung by their desire for promotion. The FAdH are virtually all criminal.
The only redemption in Goff’s eyes comes in the form of the common Haitians, a theme that is repeated in Full Spectrum across a broad array of battlefields and countries. These generalizations damage both books, where all governments are evil and all peasants are good. Fiction writers would call Goff’s voice the “unreliable first person”: his commentary is skewed by his strong political views and may not be representing the whole truth of the matter.
More than anything else, however, the problem with Hideous Dream is that it is a narrow, first-person account of an operation long since forgotten by an American public embroiled by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan which make Haiti pale in comparison. Goff expresses hope in the foreword to Full Spectrum that the American soldier will find in his previous book Dream an example of the pitfalls inherent in occupational military strategy. Although there are certainly a few lessons to be learned, I fear most combat veterans – after five years of IED and RPG attacks – will find the excitable Haitian crowds and rock throwing episodes no more than comedic fare. Goff is no slouch by military standards – any soldier today would approach a former Delta Operator and Vietnam Vet with pronounced gravitas – but the final episode of his military career plays out on a stage with no audience save the actors themselves.
His second book, Full Spectrum Disorder, pulls its name from the “Full Spectrum Dominance” former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield embraced as a means to ensure U.S. military dominance via technology. Goff does an admirable job in the first half of the book in bringing to light the overbearing and hypocritical foreign policy of the United States in Third World scenarios, topping it off with personal experiences in Somalia, South, and Central America. He touches on the inherent racism of government policy in a chance encounter with a CIA operative in Guatemala and during a training event in Peru. He expounds upon the “do as I say, not as I do” nature of the U.S. nuclear stance with regard to North Korea. He paints an excellent contrast between the successes of the FARC rebels in Colombia and the diminishing returns of the Zapatistas in Mexico.
The book’s highest marks come for the segments concerning Iraq and Afghanistan, where Goff easily discredits the Bush Administration’s attempts to justify military intervention, the Powell Doctrine of media-heavy, low-(US)casualty operations, the Rumsfield obsession with technological warfare, even the home front battle against anti-war sentiment and demonstration by dismissing the jingoistic “Support the Troops” nonsense. Published in 2004, Full Spectrum is eerie in the accuracy of its predictions on a burgeoning Iraqi insurgency and a resilient Taliban.
Spectrum loses its focus – and the reader – when Goff changes course into a bewildering set of chapters near the end of the book; these are heavy with abstractions about the irredeemable qualities of capitalism, thermodynamics, entropy, and nuclear instability; all have their say. A sample:
“Overdevelopment (as in capitalist core-infrastructure) and underdevelopment (as in lack of autonomous infrastructure in the exploited global periphery) are interdependent polarities on a shared social axis, where value is drained from the latter into the former for the purpose of maintaining a ceaselessly expanding accumulation regime.” (FSD, p. 194).
Segments like this are not without merit – Goff eventually makes correlations between capitalistic demands on the environment, the growing global energy crisis, and the historic precedent of capitalistic societies to rely on military domination for access to natural resources; all to make the point that a socialist agenda centered on utility is the best hope of a sustainable future. He also inadvertently makes a strong case against the naysayer of Global Warming by linking cumulative, high-entropy production (like that of industrial capitalistic markets) to a breakdown of the ecosystem and the Earth.
The problem is the jump Goff attempts from specific, personal examples and informed accounts of military and government inadequacies, to an overarching leftist apocalyptic prophecy of the impending doom of capitalism, with its top-heavy reliance on fossil fuels. He is right in saying economics drives politics and politics drives war, but with no transition from the personal perspective to the conceptual, he blindsides the reader, who is left sitting on the ground trying to untangle the cobwebs in her head.
Another limitation in Full Spectrum is the carryover of invective used by Goff in Dream. Although a memoir is by its nature a subjective, personalized account and therefore reflective of its author’s personality, a book like Spectrum – where Goff is trying to reach an audience based on documented missteps in U.S. foreign policy – needs more objectivity and less defamation (remember the “unreliable first person”). Just like Rush Limbaugh’s overweening personality may push moderates away on one side, Goff’s repeated description of President George W. Bush as some variation of a “spoiled preppy frat-fuck” (FSD, p. 76), will push them away on the other.
Goff says several times he wants soldiers to read his book. The majority of soldiers I know and work with would not read that description without second-guessing the validity of the entire argument or simply throwing the book away in disgust.
The language Goff employs is indicative of a larger problem in the book, namely his inability to produce an avenue for discourse among scholars, intellectuals, or anyone else interested in the application of change. He offers no substantial solution to the numerous problems he points out in U.S. foreign policy or capitalism in general except his abstract thoughts on socialism and low-entropy systems. English author Ashleigh Brilliant could have been speaking for Goff when he said, “I don’t have any solution, but I certainly admire the problem.”
Equally distressing is Spectrum’s lack of documentation, which hurts the credibility of Goff’s message. In Chapter 11 alone, there are only two works cited, leaving statements like this unsupported:
“Then 9/11 gave the Bush administration the pretext to launch a bold venture to restructure the entire global architecture by arms. The gamble was that the seizure of Iraqi (then Saudi if necessary) oil would create the conditions for a fresh upwave of imperial accumulation… and the leverage to eventually strangle China.” (FSD, p. 157).
Those are dangerous words without backing to prove their validity. The entire book can be seen as no more than an opinion piece without legitimate documentation and research. Goff may very well be right in his assumptions, as he was with Iraq and Afghanistan, but something beyond his own opinion is needed to bring a wider audience to the table. In one of the more poignant chapters of Spectrum Goff says he is writing the book “both for the left and for soldiers.” (FSD, p. 165). Again, if he wants soldiers or anyone outside his inner circle of friends to listen, he needs documentation to back his claims.
The third and final piece I reviewed was the pamphlet entitled, “Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq”, and it reveals Stan Goff at his best.
The blunt delivery of his message, coupled with valuable insights from his own experience in Vietnam, gave me the impression – as an Iraqi Vet – that he was speaking directly to me. The essence of that message is for soldiers to come back as whole beings, to not let the war take something sacred from them in its meaninglessness, hatred, and violence. Something called the soul.
Goff learned about soul-pain in Binh Dinh Province, Vietnam. I learned about it in Sadr Al Yusifiyah, Iraq. There are many, many young men and women learning about it overseas right now.
In “Hold On” we find the essence of Goff’s writing. Beyond the cynicism, the intellectual posturing, the heavily political agenda; there is Stan Goff the man, who has a sincere desire to see the world taken to a better place, and to see the men and women fighting for our country back home from the senseless violence we have created in the Middle East. It’s peculiar that in the 750 pages of Goff’s material I read it was in the last sentence that he revealed the most about his personal beliefs: “Don’t leave your souls in the dust there like another corpse” (“Humanity”, p. 6).
Goff claims no place for religion or spirituality, despite his belief in the soul, and sees both as part of the preoccupation with individualism and materialism at the root of our modern day problems. He calls religion “a persistent force not because human beings are spiritual, but because they are material. They fear individual extinction” (Dream, p. 480).
In this way, he attempts to link religion to some kind of rampant desire on the part of the individual to obtain immortality. There is some truth in that statement, but Goff underestimates the complexity of the human spirit, the yearning in many people for something sacred not only beyond themselves but in themselves and around themselves as well. Religious belief is much more than an obsession with our own finite existence: it is a celebration of all the wonderful and dreadful facets of life; intertwined, irrepressible, and Divine. A poem by Mary Oliver expresses this very well for me:
“Every day I see or hear something that more or lessMindful, from Why I Wake Early, 2004
Kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle
In the haystack of light. It is what I was born for – to look, to listen,
To lose myself inside this soft world – to instruct myself over
In joy, and acclamation. Nor am I talking about the exceptional,
The fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab
The daily presentations. Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help
But grow wise with such teachings as these – the untrimmable light
Of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?”
It is no blind faith in an afterlife that spawned those words, but rather an earthbound understanding and appreciation of the small, holy things, each special in their own way: interconnected and beautiful.
Goff goes on to say: “our species must shed the doctrine of individualism that cuts us off from one another and from community…it is a total reorientation of values, and one that renders moot the question of individual death” (Dream, p. 481).
Aside from the point that no social or individual shift in value judgment short of court-ordered lobotomies can take away the human preoccupation with death, it is worth noting that in modern religion our western culture has one of the very last bastions of community available to a population more and more separated by technology, wealth, and education.
If religion were nothing more than the individual preoccupation of which Goff speaks, how is it possible for Quaker Meetings to exist, where the entire premise of worship is based on community-shared experience, insight, and revelation? Why would my mother, an Episcopalian Priest, make daily rounds at the hospital to visit her elderly and sick parishioners if not for the legitimate bond of community formed at her Church?
Why do our Jewish friends celebrate Passover every spring – the communal uprising and escape of an entire people from the bonds of slavery in Egypt? All of these point to the vital role of community in religion and spirituality, not to a self-absorbed, unhealthy preoccupation with our own mortality.
We must meet Stan Goff at the most basic, human level. Before he begins to speak about socialism, capitalistic greed, or religion, he is a man deeply affected by his own experiences in the military and the pain he has endured on behalf of our country. He has the desire to undo some of what he has been a part of in the past, and to warn us of similar mistakes in the future. He cares about the injustices many peasant communities have suffered at the hands of our government and those governments being supported by our own.
He also cares about our men and women in uniform; about the racial and sexual relations in their ranks, the unnecessary dangers they are exposed to at the behest of Washington, the dire consequences of their continued exposure to violence, and the consequences of that exposure back in the “real” world. He is worried about the future and the sustainability of our planet’s resources.
This is the most important aspect to his writing – his own humanity – and it has served him well. The rest of us can learn from his example. We may not get the subject matter just right, but the very reason for writing can be the best point to make of all.
Q. Can you tell us first a bit about your military service and your deployment to Iraq?
A. I am an Infantry Captain in the U.S. Army and have been stationed with the 10th Mountain Division of the XVIII Airborne Corps for the past 3 years. Before that I spent approximately 8 months at Ft. Benning, Georgia, for my Officer Basic Course, Ranger School, and Airborne School. Prior to that I was a cadet at the University of Colorado for four years on an ROTC Scholarship, and at the very beginning of my military sojourn I was an enlisted National Guardsman in my adopted home state of Tennessee when I was 17 years old.
This November (2007) I came home from a 15 month deployment to Iraq where I was stationed to the southwest of Baghdad in what is known among the media as “The Triangle of Death.”
I found Iraq to be a dangerous place, but not in the same way I imagine Vietnam or Okinawa or Antietam was in the past. It was a surreal environment where the greater portion of time was spent talking to locals and attempting to help fix the problems of their economy, government, etc. Behind the scenes, however, there were groups of people posturing and moving in the hopes of killing one another. Ambushes were set; Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) were primed and buried; men were taken from their homes at night to be tortured and executed; bribes were offered and services were rendered. I found it difficult to maintain vigilance in a place where more often than not all things maintained the appearance of normality. In contrast to the continuous strain of combat in other wars, Operation Iraqi Freedom (post-invasion) continues to be fought in the blinding seconds where vehicles and bodies are torn apart; ambushes are sprung; and single, well-aimed shots are fired.
It is also important to note the complexity of the ongoing occupation. In the absence of any type of law and order following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 during the initial invasion, groups of like-minded young men formed insurgencies to fight the American forces as well as competing local militias. Soon Al-Qaeda operatives made their way into the country, and aligned several of these insurgent groups with the terrorist cells under Osama Bin Laden to fight the American occupation. Due to ongoing political tensions and an immense history of conflict, many of the Sunni and Shiite groups fought each other as well as the Kurds in the north, all in addition to fighting the Coalition forces on the ground.
To make matters even more complicated, the pool of applicants for both the Iraqi Army (which was originally disbanded in 2003) and the Iraqi Police were filled with individuals harboring ties to some of these anti-Coalition groups. What we found on our arrival in sector was an overwhelming mix of allegiances and disputes between sub-tribes and families of Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish groups, with the occasional Al-Qaeda operative thrown in for good measure.
Q. And you had a Quaker background? Can you tell us about that?
A. My mother’s parents raised their family outside Philadelphia near Valley Forge in what is still one of the strongest Quaker areas of the country, and they continue to be active in the Religious Society of Friends today. My parents met at Earlham College in Indiana: my mother went there because of her Quaker background, and my father went after attending Westtown School, where he was encouraged by the Quaker faculty to move forward in a similar institution. My elder brother and I were raised in the Religious Society of Friends in the same area of Pennsylvania up until the ages of 9 and 7, when our mother felt called by God to become an Episcopalian Priest. She was accepted to Seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she completed her theological education before being ordained. My parents divorced during this time, and my father raised us from that point on without any particular religious affiliation.
Q. While you were in Iraq, something led you to explore this earlier background. Can you tell us about that?
A. When I deployed I quickly became disillusioned with my job and supposed mission. I could not see what we were accomplishing in Iraq except getting more and more people killed or hurt. I was not able to reconcile the loss of life and the pain we were causing countless families with any greater sense of mission espoused by the chain-of-command. Our presence, instead of bringing freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, served as the rallying point for all anti-western, anti-Christian insurgencies devoted to ending the foreign occupation through violence and (in the case of Al-Qaeda) terror. To be fair, we provided some much-needed services, and did our best to jumpstart the agriculturally based economy, but I never considered these positives to be equal to the loss of life on all sides of the conflict.
My connection with the Religious Society of Friends began to redevelop as I searched for meaning through religious texts. I somehow discovered one of Howard Thurman’s wonderful books and through this was led to Rufus Jones, the well-known Quaker mystic of Haverford fame, under whom Thurman studied for some duration. Jones in turn led me to other Quaker authors: Thomas Kelly, John Greenleaf Whittier, Margaret Fell, George Fox, John Woolman, Isaac Penington, and many more.
The turning point for me was most likely after I read Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You, and Jonathan Dymond’s Inquiry into The Accordancy of War; both of which gave voice to my thoughts on the barbaric and evil nature of warfare. It took a scrupulous analysis of the mechanisms of war, such as these two works provide, for me to finally consider myself on the wrong side of the argument.
Two personal events helped me along the way. My company lost a fine soldier and NCO on Christmas Day, 2006 to a dismounted IED right outside our Patrol Base. He was a beloved comrade for many, and I was not alone in mourning his loss. Less than two months later, a fellow officer and friend who I went through all of my Ft. Benning training with was killed nearby with an EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile) while traveling in his armored vehicle. These deaths pushed me beyond the lingering romantic ideal of warfare I held since boyhood, to a place where it was no longer acceptable for people to be killed in meaninglessness conflict, no matter the “glory” or “honor” which came with this ultimate betrayal of humanity.
Q. What books or readings have helped you in making this inward transition?
A. I’ve focused my efforts on inward development as a means to change the course of my life, and so have been reading several of the Devotional Classics: St. Augustine’s Confessions, St. Francis de Sales’ An Introduction to the Devout Life, and St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises; to be exact. I also found Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline to be rewarding, and I continue to make my way through contemporary works by authors such as Bonhoeffer, Nouwen, Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Niebuhr, Tillich, C.S. Lewis, and others. I find it important to read authors willing to be open and honest about the difficulties found in a life devoted to the true Light of Christ. I don’t think the level of discipline and sacrifice for such an endeavor can be easily overemphasized.
Q. What else can you say about your experiences?
A. I would say to those considering a life in the military, there is both a positive and negative aspect to being a soldier. There is a sense of camaraderie, discipline, and pride unmatched by any other modern institution. At the same time you need to understand the dangers of combat service in the military. There is the obvious physical danger and the real possibility of losing your life, but there are also subtler dangers: mental and spiritual harms done to your mind and soul and which cannot be easily overcome. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder plagues many combat veterans. So can a sense of guilt, bewilderment, and meaninglessness. Your sense of empathy and your overall humanity may be severely impoverished. It is important to keep this in mind when considering the military as a career choice.
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*Hideous Dream. Stan Goff. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2000.
Full Spectrum Disorder: the Military in the New American Century. Stan Goff. Soft Skull Press, 2003.
“Hold On to Your Humanity: An Open Letter to GI’s in Iraq”, Stan Goff. Posted online November 14/23 2003 at: www.counterpunch.com